Determined to Make a Difference

By Brad McEwen

It’s not always easy to see drive and determination.

Sure most people have some kind of goal or aspiration that spurs them forward, but you can’t always outwardly see the intensity with which they pursue their objectives.

I’ve always felt I’m one of those types who, despite having dreams I’d like to achieve, prefers to keep things close to the vest. I’ll discuss those when pressed, and I’m certain a careful study of my actions would reveal my intent, but in truth I’ve always guarded against potential failure but keeping my ambitions to myself.

It’s for that reason that I’m always thrilled when I encounter people who not only know what they want but also have a certain matter-of-fact and direct intensity about striving to meet their goals.

I’ve been even more impressed though when the target of their efforts is to do something truly meaningful for someone else. I mean I think it’s easy to work hard for our own benefit, but it can often be a daunting task to forge ahead on someone else’s behalf. And I have nothing but admiration for those who do.

It was with that in mind that recently I reached out to Albany ARC Deputy Director DeAnna Julian, in hopes of highlighting the passion she has for improving the lives of a local population that is often forgotten or relegated to the fringes of our society.

I’ve known DeAnna for a few years now, having met her and her husband Steve, as well as their two children through some good friends of ours, and I have always been impressed by her positivity and her direct and friendly nature.

It wasn’t until I had occasion to deal with her professionally, however, that I got a glimpse of the fire she has for helping people with disabilities. From the first moment she first met me at the ARC’s new child development center on Stuart Avenue for a Herald story I was writing almost two years ago, it was evident that DeAnna was on a mission.

And that determination hasn’t faltered.

“My goal is always to help other people and fill a need in our community,” she said of her role with the organization. “Also I want to know, how do I get to be another (former ARC executive director and legendary advocate) Annette Bowling and be that person that impacts change in policy, in our state, in the lives of people with disabilities?

“I oversee several programs here at Albany ARC. I oversee the child development center, our adult day program, our residential program, staff development and training and our vocational services and employment programs.

“Really it’s just about making a difference and making an impact, having a chance to be a greater voice on a bigger platform to help the lives of people with disabilities.”

It was for those reasons that following years of service on the ARC’s board, that DeAnna made the decision to join the staff of the non-profit devoted to serving individuals with disabilities and their families three years ago, effectively shifting her career path in order to have a broader impact on the population she’s been committed to helping through the majority of her adult life.

“I taught special education for 10 years and was transition coordinator at Lee County High School for six,” she explained. “When I was transition coordinator I had the opportunity to serve on the board at Albany ARC and I just really started developing a relationship with the agencies around the area that are trying to help support high school students transitioning from school to the work place, to supportive living, to post-secondary education.

“I really saw a need to be an advocate for individuals and what they needed in their lives to be supported, and productive and successful.”

By working with the ARC DeAnna said she is able to do that through the many programs the organization offers to people of all ages with all types of disabilities—things like the adult day/independent living program, child development, vocational services, autism support, mental health programs and extensive case management services.

And while there are a variety of ways in which the ARC supports a disabled population spanning 14 counties in Southwest Georgia, it became clear to me that the mission DeAnna is on is quite simple.

“We support people to live independently in the community,” DeAnna said. “We support them to have their best possible lives and live a life just like everybody else does. They deserve that right and they deserve to live where they want to live, with who they want to live with, and do what they want to do.

“So we try to promote person-centered support as much as possible, be that through book services, through employment, through residential services, through supportive living, through Project ARC, Special Olympics. It’s a chance to really get them involved in our community and be a part of it and not segregated outside and standing alone.”

That DeAnna would have such strong feelings about wanting to see people with disabilities taken care of and treated with the same dignity and respect shown to the average person is surprising given what I learned during our interview about her background.

Although she didn’t care to get into too much detail, the Albany native said she and her relatively young parents moved around a good bit during her childhood, which eventually led to her wanting to lay down roots after the family returned to the area at the advent of her high school years.

“I went to 16 different schools before high school,” she said of those days. “So when we moved back to Albany my grandmother was here and my aunt was here and I made my mother give guardianship to my aunt because I wasn’t leaving. I was like, ‘I’m finishing high school in one spot.’ I wanted to have roots and be grounded in the community and be a part of something.”

Of course once she completed high school, she left for college and at that time had no intention of returning to the area, thinking she would forge her own path wherever it took her.

But her need to help others eventually brought her back home where’s been ever since.

“When I was going to school in Athens, my grandfather had cancer and I moved back in with my grandparents to help out. And when my grandfather died I just couldn’t leave my grandmother so I finished up school at (Georgia) Southwestern (in Americus). I met Steve, fell in love and stayed.

“And I wouldn’t change it. I tell people all the time, Albany’s a great place to live. We have a great group of people here that truly care about our community. There’s a lot of good people in Albany.

“It’s really not a bad place to live.”

Coincidentally, the community was also a place that had a sizable population of the kind of people DeAnna had decided during college in Athens that she really wanted to help. She explained that during her time in North Georgia she had an experience that she believes set her on the path she still travels today.

“I had a cousin with a disability that was my age, that I had been around most of my life, and then I always wanted to do something in the health care field to help people,” she said of her experiences with individuals with disabilities. “When I was going to school in Athens I lifeguarded and was a camp counselor at Camp Will-A-Way over in Jefferson, Ga. It’s a camp that supports people with disabilities.

“We had different agencies from all over Atlanta, North Georgia and Tennessee that would come in and bring individuals with developmental disabilities in and that summer changed my life.

“I was majoring in Exercise and Sports Science and Physical Therapy and changed my major to Special Education after that summer and never looked back. I just really felt blessed to have a job that I loved and I’ve never regretted my decision.”

DeAnna further explained that her summer at Camp Will-A-Way really helped her understand people with disabilities and how they interact with others. She said she was able to connect with the individuals at the camp in a special way and learned the importance of making sure they are treated the way you should treat everyone.

“I just think spending that summer with them and spending time with my cousin and realizing that they can do everything and have rights just like we do, was important,” said DeAnna. “If you get a chance to know them, they’ve all got some pretty cool strengths and pretty cool personalities that deserve to be heard and listened to and paid attention to. If you just listen, everybody’s got something to say.”

Throughout our conversation, DeAnna spoke at length about the fact that the people served by ARC are really not that different than anyone else when it comes to the fact that they are people with real needs and real abilities. In fact, the majority of the services ARC provides—like help with financial matters, job skills and career placement and focused educational opportunities—are things that would likely benefit any individual, not just one who was dealing with a disability.

“They have their own lives,” DeAnna said of the clients that are served. “They go where they want to go. They do what they want to do and we just help to support them to do that. We aren’t telling the when to go to bed, when to come to eat, when they have to socialize, when they have to have their own time.

“I think we’re really trying to shift the mindset. Everybody has a strength and everybody has ability. The individuals with disabilities can work, can live, can function right alongside of us and be a part of our community, not somebody that we have to take care of all the time.”

By focusing on helping those people with disabilities become integrated into everyday society, living, working, playing and going to school right beside people who don’t have disabilities, DeAnna believes a real difference has been made over time.

Thanks to the efforts of people like the late Annette Bowling, and others who championed providing equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities, DeAnna thinks things have already progressed in a positive way, which bodes well for the future.

“I think it’s getting there, especially in the school system,” DeAnna said of how the perception of individuals with disabilities has changed. “Our children are exposed to children with disabilities from day one, with schools becoming more inclusive and not as segregated, and our students with disabilities being in classed along with their ‘normal’ peers.

“I do think the younger generations are seeing them as equals in lots of ways. So, I think it’s getting there that they see them as having the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.”

That type of scenario, with students learning together regardless of circumstance is a huge departure from even when DeAnna was growing up and special needs children were taught separately.

“There’s a streamline of inclusion from an early age all the way through school and so when those children have grown up exposed to people with disabilities, they see the strengths, they see the likenesses and they’re used to it; it’s not something that’s different to them,” she said. “I mean I went to Lee County High School, I graduated in ’91, and I mean you saw a couple of people, but most of the time they were on the back hallway somewhere. I mean, they didn’t eat lunch with us. They didn’t come to PE with us.

“When I taught special education at Lee County High School my kids were involved in everything. We went to lunch. We went to PE. We went to art. We did all sorts of things. So I mean it’s really come a long way.”

While the notion of inclusion has been good for students without disabilities to gain a better understanding of those students that do have them, the real focus is making sure children with disabilities are more accustomed to the type of daily lives they will hopefully have in the future.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons the ARC recently invested in the child development center, in hopes that children with disabilities could be helped early in their lives and therefore prepared for the rigor of being in a regular classroom.

DeAnna said currently the development center is serving 40 children with plans to expand in order to serve more children, as there is currently a waiting list for admissions.

“Early intervention services are just so important for children to really learn those skills, to be a part of something, be exposed early to speech therapy, to occupational therapy, to physical therapy, to all of those strategies that need to be put in place for them to be able to function in mainstream society,” DeAnna explained. “So really it’s about reaching them early to enhance their possibility of success.

“Most of them are still going to need continued support, but they will be able to function and be on-line with their peers to be able to go into the mainstream, to preschool and kindergarten.

“We just need more space, more teachers and people being aware. When two year-olds sit beside each other they don’t see that one has a disability and one doesn’t. They just learn to play together.”

The child development center, like all of the ARC’s programs, is firmly rooted in the notion that people with disabilities certainly need support, but that assistance should be geared toward helping them learn to function in society alongside people without disabilities.

DeAnna explained that this notion of inclusion throughout society, along with support services being offered at the local, community level, rather than in state-run psychiatric hospitals, is now the overarching principle driving how all organizations like the ARC operate, which is a departure from the way things were done years ago.

And that change in mindset was brought about because of the passion and hard work of folks like DeAnna who saw how important it was keep individuals with disabilities connected to their communities and lobbied for a change.

To explain that shift, DeAnna cited an important Supreme Court ruling and a piece of state legislation that Annette Bowling was instrumental in helping to put in place, which led to the end of the practice of people with disabilities being locked away mental health institutions, which is where many with developmental disabilities were placed—whether they wanted to be there or not.

Instead, that legislation allowed for the care and support of people with disabilities to be administered by community support systems.

DeAnna said the first step in that direction was the “Olmstead case,” where the Supreme Court ruled that unjustly segregating people with disabilities constituted discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to information DeAnna provided, the court held that public entities must provide community-based services to people with disabilities, if it was appropriate to do so, the person affected did not oppose that method of support and if community care was readily available.

That ruling was then followed by Georgia House Bill 100, which DeAnna said, revamped the state’s service delivery system, effectively moving the administration of services to the community level.

“The legislation significantly changed the delivery of Mental Health and Developmental Disability services in Georgia,” she explained. “This law, which created a new regional system, transferred the authority of these services from the county boards of health to the newly created regional boards and to community service boards.

“I think a lot of things have changed for the better with House Bill 100 and them closing institutions and with the Olmstead Act, people moving into more community-integrated settings and really trying to live independent lives.”

Despite those positive changes, however, DeAnna said there is always more support that can be provided to the population served by ARC and other like entities.

Although the overwhelming majority of the organization’s funding comes from Medicaid and through grants, the ARC still needs the support of the local community, to achieve its mission. And that needed support is not financial.

“Really the community just needs to find ways to plug in and be a part of,” DeAnna said. “All of our individuals want to be a part of church lives, of organizations, of different things. I’ve always wanted to do a mentor-buddy kind of program and as we move forward in the funding trends, we’re looking at finding ways to support people outside of adult day centers and outside of just their homes.

“You know, ‘Do we have somewhere that we can go on Tuesdays and do a Bible study, or do we have somewhere we can go on Wednesdays and do arts and crafts? Do we have somewhere we can go on Thursdays?’

“And let it be their choice. If they want to do arts and crafts one day, or if they want to go do a Bible study, or if they want to go play bingo, they get to decide.

“Those are just some of the different areas where we can provide opportunities for our individuals to be a part of something besides just our programs.

“We serve 127 individuals in our residential programs and 38 at adult day, so that leaves several of our other individuals that if they’re not working, they’re at home during the day,” she continued. “So having opportunities for people to get out and about and do different things, and finding resources in the community, can be challenging. We can always use help there.”

Another way DeAnna feels the community can support what the ARC is doing is by helping to find employment opportunities for the people the ARC is serving. Even though the organization offers vocational services, there is still a role the community can play to ensure success.

“We have our vocational services program that helps and supportive employment program that helps support people with disabilities transitioning into the work force,” she said. “We have employment specialists, job coaches and that’s definitely a place where the community could get involved. You know, ‘What can we do to help support somebody to go to work?’

“We all know it takes a little bit more patience, it takes a little bit more training, but, as I’ve said before, everybody has a strength and if we find that strength, they can be the best, most dependable drug-free employee you’ve ever had.”

In my estimation, garnering increased community support for ARC and its programs shouldn’t be difficult with someone like DeAnna involved. Not only is it evident she’s working hard to see that the ARC clients are properly served today, the future executive director—who is already inline to assume the mantel once current executive director Sonny Slate retires—sees a bright future for the organization.

DeAnna, who is also passionate about health and fitness and who for years has been very involved in Special Olympics, said she hopes to see the organization eventually build a community center and athletic complex on the property behind the child development center, and an expansion of all the organization’s services.

She feels the momentum generated by the purchase of the child development facility from Sherwood Baptist, will continue in the future.

“Sherwood was very generous in selling us this property and donating computers and things that were left when they moved, so once we came in and did some construction, did some work, we were rolling,” she said. “It’s gone very well. We’re very pleased and it’s been an amazing opportunity for us to expand our child development center to have a little bit more space for several of our other programs and employees. Plus we have all this green space here.

“My goal is to do a brick and mortar grant and build a community center out back, an all-inclusive community center so our Special Olympics can practice basketball and individuals can come and work out and stay.

“So we have opportunities to do different things.

“We’re making a lot of positive changes in the right directions,” she continued. “We’re expanding our preschool. Right now we’ve got a big project going on where we’re revamping our thrift store. We’re hoping to have some opportunities for individuals supporting employment, meaningful, gainful employment through our vocational services program. Those are two biggies we’re focused on right now.

“We’re just really trying to move forward and support the lives of people with disabilities.”

As we wrapped up our time together, I commented on how impressive everything she was doing with the organization was, and her comment pretty much summed up why I think DeAnna Julian is having a positive impact on our community.

“I’m not here for Albany ARC,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m here supporting people with disabilities. And if we all come together and do that, we’ll ALL be much more impactful.”

Of that I have no doubt.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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